Today, a big toe made of wood. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The years from a thousand to
eight hundred BC were an ebb tide for ancient
Egypt. They were the dog days of the so-called New
Kingdom. The next several centuries would see
successive invasions by Ethiopians, Abyssinians,
Persians, and finally the Greeks.
But the old civilization and the old ways were
still in place. The old funerary practices were
alive and well. Now German scientists look at a
mummy from Thebes during this period.
Egyptian medicine had been highly honed for
millennia, as we know from so many preserved
bodies. (We're pretty sure that Ramses the Great
died in old age from a tooth abscess, curable only
by modern antibiotics.) We know the Egyptians were
good at traumatic medicine. And they probably did
several forms of surgery.
Now this mummy: She's a tall woman who died in her
fifties. Her tomb had been plundered; her hands and
one thigh are missing. But the rest of her body has
much to tell. Her teeth are badly worn. That was
common, since stone-milling left debris in grain.
Bread was generally hard on teeth. She also
suffered from arteriosclerosis and from a mineral
deficiency in her leg bones.
The real surprise is found on her right foot. The
big toe is made of wood! It's affixed to the foot
with an ingenious contraption made of wood plates
and thongs. It's beautifully carved, with a
realistic nail. It's been painted a dark brown.
X-rays of the foot show that that the adjacent bone
has healed, and skin has grown over it. Whether the
amputation was traumatic or surgical, we cannot
tell. However, the form of her arteriosclerosis
could suggest that the woman suffered gangrene in
the toe -- that it had to be amputated.
The article in the medical journal Lancet
points out that other false limbs have been found
in tombs. But they appear to've been a matter of
replacing missing body parts after death. That was
done so the person could enter the afterlife
But the bottom of this wooden toe shows
wear. The woman had definitely used it while she
still lived. Our big toe carries forty percent of
the weight we place on our foot. Without it, we can
feel very unstable. The mineral loss in the woman's
legs might mean that she was less mobile without
her toe. Maybe this wooden replacement was an
ingenious, if late, attempt to correct the loss.
The authors wonder if they've found the earliest
known prosthesis. Perhaps they have. But I find
their article spins an even more interesting yarn.
Piece by piece they've recreated this
three-thousand-year-old woman. I put a face on her
-- think about her verve, perhaps her elegance. I
imagine her doctor saying, "I have a new procedure
that you might like to try." I hear her answer, "By
all means, do; I don't intend to be lame." As she
becomes real, I recall a wonderful line by Emerson.
There is properly no History; only
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nerlich, A. G., Zink, A., Sziemies, U., and Hagedorn,
H. G., Ancient Egyptian Prosthesis of the Big Toe.
The Lancet, Vol. 356, Dec. 23/30, 2000, pp.
2176-2179 and the Talking Points section. I am
grateful to Houston doctor Jimmy Schmidt for
providing me with the Lancet article.
For a picture of the toe prothesis, see
Egyptian funerary vultures
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.